Meet the Chef: BlueCross BlueShield's John Palacio pursued culinary arts after stint in Marine Corps

Photo by Anne Braly / John Palacio is executive chef at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's corporate headquarters in Chattanooga, a corporate client of Flik Hospitality Group. Palacio says he likes riding his motorcycle when he's not in the kitchen.

John Palacio grew up in a big family - eight kids, plus mom and dad - so a lot of food went into making meals in the Palacio household - and the men did most of the cooking. So it's no surprise that John Palacio chose a career in the culinary arts when he finally settled down after a few years in the Marine Corps.

Palacio, who was born in Spain and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, has had a number of chef positions. After graduating from Los Angeles Trade Technical College, he had a three-year apprenticeship at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, an experience he describes as "real hands-on lessons, shoe dodging and being yelled at - the real training I needed to graduate."

Following his apprenticeship, he continued his career at Westin hotels in Santa Clara, California; Kansas City, Missouri; Beverly Hills, California; and Tucson, Arizona. Then he moved to Chattanooga and was the executive chef at Porter's Steakhouse (now Bridgeman's Chophouse) at the Read House for 12 years before moving to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where he worked as executive chef at the King and Prince resort.

He's now resettled in Chattanooga and works for Flik Hospitality Group, a global company that provides meals with a wellness-first approach to professional offices, hotels and conference centers, universities, airport lounges, professional athletics teams, K-12 independent schools and more. One of the corporate clients is BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, where Palacio is executive chef.

Q: Who influenced you to become a chef?

A: When I was a young kid, I just helped my mom in the kitchen. After the Marine Corps, I interviewed with Werner Glur, executive chef at Bonaventure. He was a very salty chef from Bern, Switzerland, and he would look me in the eye and tell me the only reason he hired me is because I was a Marine and would show up on time. It took me a year to convince him to teach me more, but once I became his apprentice, Werner personally taught me for the next four years. He was the best mentor and influence. He inspired my love of this business.

Q: In all your years as a chef, you've cooked a variety of foods, from high-fat to high-carb. Now that you're at BlueCross, you're cooking very healthful meals. How did you manage that transition?

A: I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to cook for a multitude of palates and dietary needs, from very-high calorie athletic diets to celebratory fine dining meals and everything in between. I really work to make a meal memorable, whether it is catering, a simple lunch or a high-stakes dinner. At Flik, we focus on creating dishes that are rooted in wellness and nutrition. Throughout my career, I've cooked for Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor, among others. But I believe a good meal can make anyone feel important, even if you're not a celebrity or professional athlete.

Q: Complete this sentence. If I hadn't become a chef, I would be ...

A: Either a carpenter or a career Marine. I love working with my hands so a carpenter would have been a great career; however, one of the best times of my life was being in the Marines. You get to see the world, and there is no stronger brotherhood.

Q: What's the most important cooking tool in your kitchen?

A: A chef's mind. We see things and hear things that create inspiration for the next best meal, so many of us can look into a refrigerator and see a meal waiting to be made.

Q: As an executive chef, what are your daily duties?

A: As I'm sure you can imagine, my daily duties revolve around cooking and meal planning, but every chef wears many hats to make the kitchen run smoothly behind the scenes. We have to be humble enough to wash dishes and experienced enough to create a memorable meal to ensure our customers keep coming back. To this day I will sweep and mop my kitchen.

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

A: I love to be outside, enjoying the warm weather, keeping the yard looking great. And every year I grow a garden. If the weather's nice, I will take a ride on my motorcycle.

photo Photo by Anne Braly / John Palacio, who works for Flik Hospitality Group, poses with his motorcycle outside BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, where he is executive chef.

Q: With such a busy schedule, do you have time to cook much at home?

A: I cook dinner for my wife every day, and we have a special brunch on Sundays.

Q: How does your cooking style at home differ from that work?

A: I take my time at home, have a drink with my wife, cook a little, talk a little. I still cook with love and still make nice presentations of the food.

Q: What was your first restaurant job?

A: I was a busboy at the Red Lion Inn in Omaha, Nebraska, in the late '70s.

Q: How many people do you cook for on an average day?

A: Before March, it was about 2,500. Since COVID-19, it's about 150 dedicated essential employees.

Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?

A: I love rare prime beef. When I cleaned the beef at Porter's Steakhouse, I would slice a thin piece and put it on the fire for a second before I put it on a toasted baguette. Raw fish is a close second.

Q: What's one of your favorite dishes for the holiday season?

A: My crab cakes. It's a recipe that I made at Porter's, and we could sell 800 to 1,000 of them a week. They were so popular.

Chef John's Famous Crab Cakes

This recipe serves a crowd but can be easily cut in half for smaller groups.

1/2 pound butter

6 ounces roughly chopped fresh ginger

6 ounces roughly chopped fresh garlic

6 ounces roughly chopped shallots

2 stalks roughly chopped lemongrass

2 cups white wine

1 quart heavy cream

3 pounds cream cheese

6 pounds crab meat

6 ounces Chinese chili garlic

1 bunch fresh chopped cilantro, including stems

1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced

24 ounces mayonnaise

4 ounces chopped pimentos

6 ounces lemon juice

6 ounces Dijon mustard

12 cups panko breadcrumbs

Melt butter in a 4-quart saucepan. Add ginger, garlic, shallots and lemongrass, and saute until very fragrant. Add wine, and simmer until liquid is reduced by three-quarters, then strain the liquid and place liquid in a smaller pot and bring it to a simmer. Add heavy cream and cream cheese, heating slowly and stirring occasionally until mixture is creamy. Remove from heat, and chill.

When ready to make crab cakes, in a large bowl, combine crab meat, chili garlic, cilantro, green onions, mayonnaise, pimentos, lemon juice and Dijon mustard. Mix together thoroughly. Add the cream base that's been in the refrigerator. Once thoroughly mixed, measure out 3-ounce portions.

Place breadcrumbs in a bowl, and drop the 3-ounce portions into the breadcrumbs, then form cakes with your hand. They'll look like little hockey pucks.

To cook, melt some more butter in a saute pan, and cook the crab cakes until golden brown on both sides. Serve with your favorite sauce - cocktail, tarter, Japanese white sauce or whatever sauce you like best with seafood.

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